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Frederic Chopin. Program Two, “Treasures”

  • Polonaise in E-flat Minor, Op.26 No.2
  • Mazurka in F-sharp Minor, Op.59 No.3
  • Mazurka in C-sharp Minor, Op.50 No.3
  • Nocturne in B Major, Op.62 No.1
  • Nocturne in C Minor, Op.48 No.1
  • Polonaise in F-sharp Minor, Op.44

  • Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op.10 No.4
  • Etude in G-flat Major, Op.10 No.5
  • Etude in E-flat Minor, Op.10 No.6
  • Etude in F Major, Op.10 No.8
  • Etude in C Minor, Op.10 No.12
  • Etude in E Minor, Op.25 No.5
  • Etude in G-sharp Minor, Op.25 No.6
  • Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op.25 No.7
  • Etude in B Minor, Op.25 No.10
  • Etude in A Minor, Op.25 No.11
  • Etude in C Minor, Op.25 No.12
  • Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op.60
  • Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op.53

  1. Impromptu-fantasie, Op.66
  2. Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op.22
  3. Nocturne in C Minor, Op.48 No.1

(dedicated to the bicentennial of Chopin's birth)

Vazgen Vartanian has given a surprisingly appropriate name to this program, a collection of miniatures, small masterpieces, each one of which is literally a polished gem. By and large, in these treasures, there are the ruby polonaises, representing the triumphant imagery of a national procession, the emerald and sapphire nocturnes, immersing the listener in the most arcane depths of feeling, the turquoise etudes, scintillating in all their facets of pianistic technique, and, finally, the multicolored alexandrite mazurkas, burning with a gleam of patriotic feeling. And the setting for all this? It is Vazgen Vartanian's great piano mastery. We see in this program a casket of treasures and hear the soul of the composer; a wonderful necklace, a regal musical offering to a great composer.

Chopin showed a special affinity for small forms; his mind was a large creative workshop for experiments with perfection, a multi-faceted unfolding of the most delicate motions of the soul. For each genre presented, there is its own scale of emotional experiences.

The genre of the polonaise begins, divides and ends the program “Treasures”, itself being a monumental vault existing in a small form. The polonaise is a symbol of Polish nationalism, an idealized concept of dramatic heroism of national spirit, giving birth to pictorial and affectual associations. In Chopin's polonaises, in the words of B. Asafiev, there is much of the rhythm of the regal bearing of the Polish nobility inherited from knighthood. And what a plethora of passionate feelings they have!

The polonaise in E-flat minor, Op.26 No.2, which opens the program, is a dramatic one. The pianist did not choose this by mere chance. Vazgen Vartanian is not simply a performer; he is a dramatist, an artist, creating his mural with the very soulful vitality of the composer. The first piece here is a vivid prologue, a raising of the curtain, revealing a landscape of stunning beauty from the pensive valleys of delicate and reserved feeling to the scintillating pinnacles of passion. We do not see this landscape, but we hear it, in the quietest, most secretive pianissimo of the opening harmonies, in the palpitations beneath his fingers, replete with tender melodic feeling and chords swooping down from above.

The expressivenesss of Vazgen Vartanian's performance of the polonaise is also amazing. It combines organically with the sculptural magnanimity of aural concepts and passionate abandon. This is the supreme result of pianistic mastery and a high tribute to the memory of a great composer.

Chopin's mazurkas are small sketches, literally pictures of his homeland, permeated with feelings of love and sadness when he had to part with it. The poeticalness of the mazurka, its conversion from a simple Polish popular country dance to a most delicate poetical miniature of psychological content, was always a decidedly marked characteristic of Chopin's innovative genius. It is considered that he successfully achieved the synthesis of the way of life of the common folk and the aristocracy, so to speak. It can also be considered that he “united” his two fatherlands, Poland and France. In this context, to underline the finesse and European aristocratization of the mazurkas was the principal task, not only with regard to theory but also in the execution of the performance and its interpretation.

Vazgen Vartanian's performance of these mazurkas dispels these stereotypes. So what do we hear? Clearly a characterization of national coloring comes through by means of the pianist's delicacy and aristocratic exquisiteness of Chopin's sonorities. We hear flexibility and sharpness of rhythm, at times even a purposely contrived roughness of the of “stomping of hoofbeats”, a prominent delineation of inflection, full-blooded basses, refined strokes in characteristic national melodies and a stunning freedom of conceptual development.

How sharply and exactly captured by the performer are the very pangs at the heart of his soulful endeavors! For Chopin, the most important thing, perhaps, was to impart the spirit of his beloved Poland to his new life. But there is another hidden reason, intuitively grasped by Vazgen Vartanian: in these works is the healthy spirit of life, beating over the limit into resilient rhythms and by inflectional characterization, is that precise source of life which was so indispensable to Chopin's delicate physical frame. This source was in the depth of his soul, it beat rhythmic pulsations, it yearned to break out, carrying in it the very fire of life and spirit. Such are the mazurkas in Vartanian's interpretations; in it a powerful and resilient strength is established; a national spirit emerges from the ashes, illuminating the refined forms of salon life. This is a rare symbiosis born of the talent of the performer. Such interpretations can boldly be called unique when compared with the customary “smoothed out” interpretations of other performers.

Of a totally different tone are the nocturnes (night pieces), the quintessence of Chopin's lyric. Is it possible not to love Chopin's nocturnes, or show indifference to them? No, because in the soul, one can always find a chord which sounds in unison with piercing tenderness, deep pensiveness, or with openly expressed passionate feeling. It is precisely this contrast that we see in these nocturnes, included by Vartanian in the program “Treasures”. The B-major nocturne, Op.62 No.2, written not long before the composer's death, is a true night piece; it resembles a mirror-like surface, a quiet nocturnal river with barely noticeable ripples with an invisible, almost inaudible, but palpable, motion. This is, perhaps, one of the “quietest” pieces in the piano literature, from the beginning to the end, with the exception of a few. Such complex simplicity! To achieve it, and not stumble into a static state, concentrating the whole life of the spirit on slow meditation, as Vartanian has succeeded in doing, is a most difficult task for an interpreter. Repressed feeling finds explosive, passionate expression in the C-minor nocturne, Op.48 No.1. Both nocturnes seem literally linked to each other by one line of spiritual suffering, even though they were composed several years apart, and the second was composed before the first. But such is Vartanian's dramatic choice; his philosophical comprehension of the life of feelings. Such is his own nature in which passion and explosiveness are intrinsically hidden under an outer reserve, but once they are freed, they unabashedly invoke enthusiasm with their intense emotion.

The “Barcarolle”, Op.60, is widely called “Chopin's greatest nocturne”; in it, all the means of expressive possibility of his lyrical style reached the height of colorfulness, delicacy, boldness of chromatic harmony, a great beauty and a directness of melody. This is a real impressionist poem in sound. This work demands an especially delicate manner of playing: gentle, “free” hands, “dreamy”, sensitive fingers. This is precisely how Vartanian plays it, exploiting and masterfully underlining the originality and sensitively developed expressiveness of Chopin's piano style. Inflectional suppleness, transparency of sound, make us hear the vital essence of water from a light trickling to the full unleashing of the element. And the whole performance is harnessed to the task of the creation of an all-around (comprehensive) concept, the life of which lies in a colorful, constantly changing palette, relentlessly unfolding, an unleashing of emotion.

And, finally, Chopin's etudes, a diamond mine of brilliant works, scintillating in all facets of performance mastery. Each etude is a small masterpiece and poses certain technical challenges. Here there is cantilena over a pedal point, there is a rich melodious ornamentality, brilliant passage technique with a wide engrossment of registers. But, first and foremost, this is music of genius, revealing to the limit the possibilities of the instrument.

In this case, only the pianist-performer himself can reposition the accents. The whole idea of a passage, its technical execution, its source to both the composer and the performer are different, from the very beginning: for the author, motion and spiritual inspiration are foremost, and only then, come the notes with which these attributes are expressed. For the performer, the sequence of notes is primary; behind the notes lies the feeling. Will it be felt, will it become an expression of the soul itself, or will it simply remain a passage, even though the performance, from a technical point of view, may be brilliant? This, perhaps, is the most important issue of performance mastery.

Vartanian performs the most complex of passages with divine levity; his attitude towards technique is truly the author's, in which the most important thing is not only mastery itself, but feeling and concept. The unique aspect of Vartanian's performance of the etudes lies in the fact that each passage, each technical manoeuvre is artistic, delicately melodic. In what does the secret of the most delicate nuances, and the liveliness of musical fabric, born under his fingers, consist of? He is almost elusive, but it is precisely in this way that he perpetuates the ethereal qualities of the concept: not large, curt, literally for a split second, the elongation of sound: the culmination of a passage, like a sigh, like a heave, and lo- the movement has already continued further- a new sprinkling of bead-like sound… thus organically are joined phrases of elusive and natural rhythmic life, in which the body and soul are one.

The outstanding pianist of the 20th century Alfred Cortot said: “Chopin's music is played not with the fingers, but with heart and fantasy”. This is precisely how Vazgen Vartanian plays, as if bearing anew the world of Chopin's feelings, adhering amazingly close to the original in matters of delicacy, variety and intensity of individual expression - a portrait of Chopin's immortal soul.

Tatyana Razbeglova
Translation: Antonio Gomes

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